For a product hardly anyone had been aware of five years ago, they now appear to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written concerning the safety of these products and their potential to either support or destroy efforts to minimize smoking rates, it’s timely to consider why the international tobacco industry has taken such a keen interest in buying e-cigarette companies.

Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the international electronic cigarette industry is minuscule compared to traditional cigarettes and tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.

Compare this to the global tobacco market, probably the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth approximately US$800 billion – greater than 260 times the size of the electronic cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside China, is dominated and controlled by just five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.

All the major global tobacco companies have a stake inside the electronic cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent electronic cigarette companies.

Philip Morris International, called PMI, has brought it a step further: in addition to recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will be launching the where to buy e cigs. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to create a tobacco vapour.

PMI intends to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this year. Similar kinds of products were introduced within the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected the taste and lack of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of heat technology could be more acceptable to smokers.

On the surface, it may seem like the tobacco market is simply buying up these companies before they turn into a major threat to its profits. As well as, it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes to control the marketplace.

But considering simply how much more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, as well as the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s essential to question what other motivations they might have.

Tobacco advertising on television is almost universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. This has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on tv screens in the United States and Uk. But electronic cigarette marketing is really a booming business in both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.

Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and sweetness to promote addictive products is extremely familiar territory for that tobacco industry. These sorts of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only interested in selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to stop smoking.

Enhance the proven fact that PMI can no longer show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it can promote the US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes can also help the tobacco industry undo the consequences of policies which have seen cigarettes pushed from social settings that kept people smoking. While smoking bans are principally about protecting people, especially workers, from secondhand smoke, they have an extra positive advantage of reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to permit electronic cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is no must quit, because once you can’t smoke, simply employ an e-cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to keep smoking the true stuff when you are able too.

Since acquiring electronic cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers trying to reduce smoking. The business has not yet raised a white flag and decided to no more oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It really is business as usual: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that effect on cigarette sales. Which explains why the worldwide treaty to lessen tobacco use, the planet Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is explicit in banning tobacco industry influence in tobacco control policy. Getting a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” in between the industry and public health means the industry is not really a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.

E-cigarettes really are a potentially great tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back at the policy table. If it can point out e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is also trying to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it will not be shut out of the regulatory process. Regardless of that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny portion of its total business.

And finally, e-cigarettes certainly are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. Without doubt the tobacco industry celebrates witnessing the debate and division among tobacco control colleagues within the utility of e-cigarettes in reducing the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid to the deadly US$800 billion arm from the business the higher.